Law Review Lara on Editing by Student-Run Law Reviews:

A law review editor writes:

I am curious to know your thoughts on the amount of editing you think a law review should do because my primary concern when editing is infringing on the author's style (as noted in the comments to your post). My general approach is to always strive for clarity then brevity when editing, but in cutting needless words, I always worry that I am somehow infringing on style. I could say a lot about this topic, but I'm sure you are familiar with these general concerns.

This is a topic near and dear to Law Review Lara's heart, because many of Lara's closest friends write law review articles. Those friends love to hear valuable editing suggestions — even when the suggestions are in the form of implemented edits that the author can undo or mark "stet" — especially because they recognize that an author may have a hard time seeing flaws in his work.

But the friends don't at all love to hear editors insisting on changes unless the change is genuinely necessary. Those friends think their writing is theirs, and is tied to their identities and reputations much more than to the journal's identity and reputation. Moreover, many of the friends have been professional writers for many years, and fancy themselves to be better than law students as final arbiters, though they are happy to hear the law students' advice.

Of course, the friends would also prefer that even the nonobligatory suggestions be mostly good ones, so they won't have to spend too much time going through and rejecting the unhelpful ones. Still, they recognize that editors and authors often have different approaches and that authors will inevitably have to spend some time rejecting suggestions they dislike in order to get the benefit of the suggestions they like.

So what should law review editors do, both to maximize the quality of the journal and to make both the authors and the editors as satisfied as possible? There's of course no precise answer, but here are a few guidelines:

1. Stress to the authors that all the edits are only suggestions, except for the very few that are required for the sake of accuracy or to comport with universally accepted rules of writing or formatting.

2. If an author rejects a proposed change, and your only reason for insisting on the change is "law review policy" or "law review style" or "consistency among articles" stop insisting. Almost no-one reads law reviews cover to cover (except for symposium issues, and rarely even then). No-one will notice, much less remark on, the fact that some articles in an issue use contractions and others don't, or that some authors split infinitives and others don't. If you're applying a universally accepted rule, then you can indeed politely say to the author that his usage appears wrong according to the proper authorities; but then you're relying on the authorities, not "law review policy."

3. Make as many suggestions as you can that are aimed at making the prose clearer, more precise, shorter, or otherwise more readable. Most authors will appreciate your effort, and will agree to most of your suggestions --- especially if they're good — since they too want their prose to be clearer, more precise, shorter, or otherwise more readable (even if it didn't seem so from reading their article).

4. Try to make your suggestions as good as possible. That's a hard one, I know, but it's of course the most important one — both for the sake of the authors, and for the sake of editors' education. (Law review editing, after all, is supposed to be an educational experience.)

Try to train your staffers and editors in good editing. Give them editing exercises to show them how to edit well. Stress to them the importance of editing for clarity, precision, and conciseness, rather than just for consistency with the technical rules of grammar and spelling. Select people who are good at editing to supervise the process, and tell them to give editors feedback about their editing (especially when the editors who get the feedback are in their 1L/2L year rather than their 2L/3L year).

5. Figure out which of the author's usages are deliberate reflections of the author's style. If the author uses contractions throughout the article, don't just change each one to the spelled-out version, even just as a suggestion. The author obviously likes contractions, and will find all your work in spelling them out to be useless.

Rather, if you genuinely think contractions don't work well for your journal, discuss this up front with the author, before wasting your time and his. If the author insists that he likes contractions, then go through and mark those particular contractions that you think are especially inapt. The author will probably accept most of those suggestions, because they reflect individualized judgment about what works best in each particular context. But if you tried to "correct" all the contractions, the author would probably have rejected all these suggestions, because he'd see that they simply reflected disagreement with his style.

6. Finally, never make unmarked changes, not even a comma or a font change. Many authors rightly demand that every letter and symbol in their article be something they personally wrote or personally approved, having been told that someone else inserted it. You can mark these edits on paper, or using a word processor Track Changes feature, or even by using a word processor Compare Documents feature, if the document comparison tool does a good enough job of noting precisely where the changes are. But mark them, or you could have one angry author on your hands.

Lara is sure there's more that can be said, and perhaps she will say more in future posts. But for now, she hopes that this offers a helpful guideline.